What You Say CAN Be Used Against You on Social Media

By Damon Poeter

We use social media to connect with friends and family; talk about sports, music and movies; look for work; keep up with the news of the day and more. Many people don’t realize how ingrained their lives are on these social platforms.

 Being safe and smart about your online activity isn’t just good manners – it’s a practice that could save you a lot of pain in your personal and work life, says Ingrid Bruns, director of personal finance and military life advice at USAA and an Accredited Financial Counselor©.

“It’s not just what you say online today that can hurt you. What you said or even ‘liked’ years ago can also be dredged up by an employer and come back to haunt you,” she says. “And if you have kids, you also have to teach them to be smart on the Internet so they won’t be dinged down the road over something they posted in high school.”

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You Don’t Have to Be Famous to Feel the Flames of Social Media Backlash

We all know about the celebrities who’ve torpedoed themselves with injudicious Internet posts. What fewer people realize is that regular folks can also receive significant backlash for how they use social media platforms.

The numbers back this up. In a survey of US employers, 18% said they had fired people over things they had posted on the Internet, according to CareerBuilder. Nearly 30% said they’d dismissed employees for conducting personal business online during company time.

It might seem strange to be penalized for exercising one’s First Amendment rights – after all, defending those rights for everyone often comes at great cost to service members and their families.

But it’s important to remember that our right to free speech doesn’t negate the rights of others to criticize that speech. Nor does it force employers to hire us regardless of how we comport ourselves in public, Bruns says.

Become a Smarter, Safer Surfer

The Department of Defense has its own rules for use of social media by active service members. Civilians have much greater freedom on the Internet, and Bruns has some general rules for using it responsibly:

Don’t trust in anonymity. An anonymous or pseudonymous Internet profile can often be breached by people motivated to expose the person behind it. Those who post offensive or threatening material under a fake name risk giving such sleuths a reason to try to track them down.

Be careful about what you “like” online. Even if you didn’t post it, giving a “thumbs up” to something objectionable might draw unwanted attention to yourself.

Don’t “friend” your coworkers. If you ever discuss personal things online that you’d rather not share with your workmates, keep your social media activity separate from your work life. 

Don’t threaten, harass, defame, slander, libel or try to defraud people online. This is the sort of speech that might not just get you in trouble at work but could land you in legal hot water as well.

Deletion doesn’t always mean forever. If you’ve said or posted something online that you regret, delete it if you can. Just know that the platform you posted it on might still retain it, and other people might have seen it and made a copy.

The “my account got hacked” excuse usually doesn’t work. Unless your account really did get hacked – it does happen – you’re probably better off fessing up to a regrettable post or comment and apologizing for it.

Learn your company’s policy on Internet use. Many companies offer “Internet breaks” during worktime, when employees can use social media or do things like shop online. Stick to those rules and you should be fine.

On a Brighter Note …

Despite all this, the benefits of the Internet far outweigh its pitfalls, Bruns argues.

“Social media has made it possible for grandparents to see their grandkids grow up, even from far way. It’s made it possible for deployed service members and their families to communicate more easily and more frequently. It’s helped people find jobs and rekindle friendships,” she says.

“Use social media the right way, and it can enrich your life.”

Check out USAA’s YouTube channel for more life tips, the “Service & Ink” series, “Straight Shooters” and much more.

Ingrid Bruns is the director of personal finance and military life advice at USAA, an Accredited Financial Counselor© and also holds the Accredited Domestic Partnership Advisor designation. Prior to joining USAA in 2013, Ingrid worked as a personal finance counselor for service members and their families as a Department of Defense contractor. Before that, she was the director for the Stuttgart, Germany, USO, where she worked to help provide a “home away from home” for military families.


Safety guidelines are not intended to be all inclusive, but are provided for your consideration. Please use your own judgment to determine what safety features/procedures should be used in each unique situation.

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